MLK Day didn't begin as a 'Day of Service,' it became one later

·6 min read

Between bitter political divides and a pandemic that is still casting a pall over daily life, it's a difficult time to embrace the National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

But to miss the opportunity would be a mistake, say community leaders and advocates for the needy.

"It’s never been more important for us to come together as one community," said Brian Dean, president of Jersey Cares, a volunteer agency.

"Not just assist each other, but partner with each other and really see ourselves as communities working together. When you think about Martin Luther King and all the wonderful things he inspired in our world, what a better inspiration for people to go out and build a community," Dean said.

The federal holiday that commemorates the Jan. 15, 1929, birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is not just a day off work, but a day to reflect and learn, and to take the pulse of where we are in the civil rights journey. It's also a day officially set aside by Congress for service.

Day of Service

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, many organizations are carrying on the spirit of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, a federal holiday enacted in 1994 that encouraged communities to commemorate King's memory by making it a "day on, not a day off."

Jeff Carter, president of the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP, said the pandemic may have limited indoor events in recent times, but there are many opportunities for people to safely participate remotely. Bergen County is hosting virtual events to commemorate the day, including a prayer with the Religious Affairs Committee on Sunday.

On MLK Day in 2019, Mark Morea of Glen Rock helped make teddy bears with other North Jersey students at Bergen Community College in Paramus.
On MLK Day in 2019, Mark Morea of Glen Rock helped make teddy bears with other North Jersey students at Bergen Community College in Paramus.

"When the pandemic hit, it inordinately hit the African American and Hispanic community," said Carter. "We’re very cautious when doing programs. Nobody should go to an MLK program and die."

In pre-pandemic times, Jersey Cares, a Livingston nonprofit group that organizes volunteering opportunities, was seeing an increase in the number of volunteers, with 2,300 looking to help out, said Dean.

However, the number decreased once the pandemic hit, to a little over 500 volunteers this year, with a majority volunteering virtually. Dean, however, doesn’t attribute this decrease in volunteers to lack of interest in the Day of Service, but rather people taking precautions to avoid COVID-19.

“Once we are back in person, we’ll bounce back to where we were before,” he said.

For Martin Luther King Day, the nonprofit is organizing a number of activities, from kids making cards for health care workers, to volunteers making sleep kits for Afghan refugees.

MLK Day: Rabbi Israel Dresner, civil rights activist who marched with MLK, dies at 92

The Center for Food Action, a food bank based in Englewood that serves 100 North Jersey towns, is also doing its part to carry out the Day of Service. And that service is even more needed this year, as the nonprofit saw 35,000 additional people in need of food as compared to 2020.

“Nobody wants to send a child to bed hungry,” said Kelly Sirimoglu, communications director for the Center for Food Action. “We’re really pushing to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The organization will host a variety of pop-up drive-thru food distribution events leading up to the Day of Service, while also hosting a virtual talk with Theodora Smiley Lacey, a civil rights pioneer. She will talk about her own history to keep King’s message alive.

New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy joined CUMAC Volunteer Coordinator Kayann Foster, Gov. Phil Murphy and CUMAC Volunteer Coordinator Jeni Mastrangelo on Martin Luther King Day last year to help out at the Paterson food pantry.
New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy joined CUMAC Volunteer Coordinator Kayann Foster, Gov. Phil Murphy and CUMAC Volunteer Coordinator Jeni Mastrangelo on Martin Luther King Day last year to help out at the Paterson food pantry.

At the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Day of Service efforts are as "strong as they've ever been," said Laura Freeman, communications director for the organization. This year, the group has worked together with the community on one of their biggest efforts yet: collecting 10,000 pairs of socks for those in need.

"Martin Luther King and all that he embodies is very consistent with our values," said Freeman. "We always do something for MLK day since it's very much in line with our mission."

A day of reflection

But not everyone believes that service is the most important way to honor King's legacy.

For Lynne Algrant, who has a personal connection to Martin Luther King Jr. (her mother knew him in college, and her father worked with him Chicago), she likes to observe a day of reflection, rather than a day of service.

"I certainly like the Day of Service and I have participated in some family Day of Service things and it's been wonderful," said Algrant, a vice president at nonprofit Greater Bergen Community Action Inc. "But also, the thing about doing a day of service is, somebody is working."

Many note that the Day of Service designation was added to the holiday 11 years after the passage of the law making the third Monday in January a federal holiday — perhaps as a way to overcome resistance to honoring King.

Algrant will spend the day giving a talk on redlining and other causes of racial wealth disparities in America, at a virtual teach-in at Dwight-Englewood School.

"It's looking at some of the systemic issues of racism, which is the direction he was going in later in his life," said Algrant.

She is also preparing to speak at The Idea School, a progressive Orthodox Jewish high school at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly, on the topic of Black and Jewish relations.

More: Paterson mourns civil rights activist Russell Graddy, a 'trailblazer' and a 'legend'

The two communities need to find a way to support each other, she said. "If one of us is at risk all of us are at risk," said Algrant.

The Rev. Robyn Perkins, a pastor at Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion church in Ridgewood, said the day should both be "a day of service and reflecting on the changes he made in this country."

Her church holds an annual service that she said is one of the longest-running MLK services in the county. It will be held virtually for the second year in a row due to the pandemic.

"It's interfaith, it's interracial," said Perkins of the event. "I think there are a lot of people coming together who might not otherwise come together."

Fair Lawn resident Daniella Jordan-Mays, who remembers watching King's speeches in Mississippi, said she, too, likes to spend her day reflecting on his legacy.

"To say it's a day of service, it's taken that flavor away from the reverence of reflecting on his day and name," she said.

"Every day is a day of service where we should strive to appreciate each other by doing things like ringing your next-door neighbor's bell and saying, 'Hey you need something out of the store?'" Jordan-Mays said.

How to help

How to learn

Shaylah Brown is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: browns@northjersey.com

Twitter: @shaylah_brown

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: How Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a day of service